Thursday 8 December 2016

A long day's journey towards self-help hell

If you want to read about a good trip, just stick to the travel section

Published 13/02/2010 | 05:00

Today, I am going to abuse my position as a columnist in this fine paper. Today, I am going to rant (and to a certain extent, rave) because I am as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more. Today, I am going to let myself go and share my feelings with you on the hijacking of a word and that word is ... 'journey'.

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We all know what a journey is and how to go on one and how to enjoy one and where to shop when you get there and how to send a postcard and how to get home and how to bore your friends about the time you had.

That's because, up until recently, the word 'journey' was a simple and easily defined one.

Some of the greatest books ever written are based around journeys. Many of literature's most memorable characters travelled together on magnificent journeys. It's a straightforward technique; two unlikely people, ending up on the road together despite their mis-matched qualities only to find, after lots of funny and tragic episodes, that they really do like or love each other after all.

From Homer's Odyssey to McCarthy's The Road, 'journeys' have often formed the centrepiece for novels and stories down through the years.

And then one day, maybe 10, perhaps five years ago, somebody somewhere decided that the standard, reliable definition of 'journey' had shifted.

The word was abducted, taken in for questioning and released after some harsh treatment and a little waterboarding.

It took the word some time to recover but when it returned to common usage, all was changed utterly and a terrible new 'journey' was born. The new 'journey' wasn't long out of its awful prison before it was taken into rehab where it was pampered into full recovery and then it was time to face the people.

The natural and obvious home for the new-look 'journey' was prime-time television, with the biggest star on the biggest television show in the world. There was no argument, it was time to call Oprah.

Now, we all know that Ms Winfrey has more power than the average American president.

She can shut down beef production in the English-speaking world, she can shift more copies of an author's book by just mentioning it in passing and she can encourage a whole nation to slim down just because she wants to do it herself.

There was a time when Oprah's show was a bit freakish, with a string of oddballs and misfits, but things changed when she became something akin to an international mother figure and, in that new role, Oprah developed her own language, which she either invented herself or gleaned from the small section of the bookshop that would go on to grow into a massive one, the row marked 'self-help'.

(We are about halfway through our 'journey' in this column now, so you might want to make a cup of herbal tea, have a quick chat with an angel or light an incense stick.)

Back to Oprah, as it was she who seems to have started the re-fashioning of this once simple word.

For some peculiar reason, everyone who came on to the show and told their story (usually a miserable life that was turned from tragedy into triumph) was told that theirs was an extraordinary 'journey'.

No longer was it good enough to just tell a simple, but mildly interesting, story about your life, you had to have a "journey", which suggests an epic odyssey rather than a tough childhood in the Bronx or a wet, drink-sodden existence somewhere in Ireland.

Guest after guest came forward to tell their tale and that poor word 'journey' got a hammering time and again. " ... and then I knew that all that injustice and unfairness was part of my journey ... " or " ... which makes me a better person because it feels like it was part of my personal journey" and so on and so forth. After the appearance on Oprah, our friend's "journey" got into the self-help business and became an international best-seller, featuring in pretty much every book that filled the increasing amount of shelves that heaved under the weight of such books that were on an incredible and extremely lucrative journey of their own.

From here, the international career took off and it wasn't long before 'journey' reached Irish shores.

I can't recall which show it first appeared on but I do know that about three years ago on my own radio show, 'journey' first made its presence felt.

It was always used to describe a life that wasn't easy and it was mostly used as a way of saying that 'We all have our cross to bear' or 'C'est la vie', both clichés that may have just run their course and needed upgrading or recalibrated.

So why did 'journey' come back with such a vengeance? How did that word have as impressive a comeback as Take That? Who decided that there was a new/old verbal kid on the block and who decided that this was a welcome development?

The chances are it was the same people who felt that the expression "going forward" was more acceptable than "in future" or that "year on year" was more acceptable than 'annually'. Some words just become outdated and obsolete (forsooth, whence, perchance, etc) only to be supplanted by new words or old words reconfigured or regular words re-interpreted like our old friend 'journey'.

If you do visit a bookshop today and want to read about a good trip, try the classics section or the travel section as it might make for slightly more interesting reading. Skip the self-help section and start a good old-fashioned journey.

Irish Independent

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